Story+ Project

A Pope Wrote a Dictionary: You Figure Out How


Our story starts a millennium ago, in the ninth century. A young man named Photios, who would one day become Patriarch of Constantinople, decided to write a Greek dictionary. OK, as if this weren’t weird enough already, this wasn’t just any dictionary, but one that sought to explain ancient Greek literature from more than a 1000 years before his time (even in his day, and even among devoted Christians, the intellectual, scholarly, and cultural attachment to pagan ancient Greece was strong!) This work is a precious resource for scholars of ancient Greece today. It almost wasn’t: only one complete manuscript of the work survives today. Our best modern edition of the work is yet incomplete—the editor died before completing the gigantic task. What’s more, the Lexicon has never been translated into a modern language. A team of Duke grads and undergrads has set out to remedy that situation, by translating the work, one entry at a time (or as much of it as they can; there are about 20,000 entries!).

But even this will give us only a partial picture of what this important scholar was up to. See, Photios did not write the work from scratch. Like every other ancient lexicographer—all of whom lived and worked before plagiarism was invented as an ill—he built his dictionary out of thousands of re-used bits and pieces that he took from other books; and his own Lexicon was subsequently mined and re-used by others. If we could understand how he sliced and diced that intellectual tradition in order to compose his own work, we might begin to understand in a way that no scholars have, how some of our earliest ‘academics’ thought about humanistic inquiry, about literature, about the meaning of words, about the importance of history, about their place in a long and evolving scholarly tradition.

Project Objectives

But how in the world is a team of Duke students going to do all that?! Fortunately, scholars have generated lists of sources that Photios used and that used Photios. But these are locked away in the pages of printed books. And the current Duke team has already made a start. A team of 2 undergrads will work closely with a graduate student (who is specializing in this weird material) to:

  • Migrate strategic selections from that source-use data to a simple database

  • Develop questions to ask of the data, with which to start trying to understand how this early scholar thought about his research

  • Use that emerging understanding to ask new questions, cycle back to the data, and repeat, until slowly, carefully, the whole team acquires understanding sufficient to

  • Write brief descriptions of Photios’ work habits and methodologies, principles of text re-use, and other short-form analysis that will help scholars—for the first time—to understand how this important figure worked and thought.

These short analytical pieces will be added to the website in which the current team is doing its translation work. And next time the class is taught, these pieces will function as introductory teaching materials for the students!

Project Sponsor(s): 

Joshua Sosin, Associate Professor of Classical Studies, Duke University

Graduate Mentor(s): 

Alexander Fowler, Clinton Kinkade, Tori Lee, Classical Studies


Inessa Chandra, Lucian Lee, Hunter McGhee


Short analyses of Photios I of Constantinople’s lexicographical method based on careful textual comparisons of his 9th century Greek dictionary with previous and subsequent lexica.

Photios baptising the king of Bulgaria and the Bulgarians. Public domain image.


  • Translation
  • Archives
  • History

Skills required

  • Research with Primary Sources
  • Comfortable with Spreadsheets
  • Eager to think about the intersection of humanities and data
  • Collaborate with Group
  • Passionate about slightly nerdy things